One of experts interviewed in the collective volume edited by psychologist Jean-François Marmion, The Psychology of Stupidity (2020; originally Psychologie de la Connerie, 2018; trans. Liesl Schillinger), to which I devoted my post of 4 March, was moral philosopher Aaron James. Having now read his splendid monograph Assholes: A Theory (2012), I would like to use my post today for a reflection on the asshole as a gradation in what I am calling patriarchal villainy (we are here within Masculinities Studies). James notes that most assholes are men in the same way I note that most villains are men, and we both coincide that there are female assholes and villains (villainess is, like heroine, a feminized narrative role and not a moral category). James and I also coincide on the reason why assholes and villains are mainly male: both types are characterized by a strong sense of entitlement only encouraged in men by patriarchy; some women who enjoy or take power in their hands also allow themselves to behave as assholes or villains, but they are a tiny minority.
First, some etymology and a caveat on linguistic differences. Even though we are used to hearing the word ‘asshole’ invoked many times in films and series to insult or describe a guy behaving obnoxiously, this is an American corruption of the original word, ‘arsehole’, meaning, of course, ‘anus’. British speakers understand the ‘ass’ in ‘asshole’ to mean a donkey, which makes no sense to them. Calling someone an ‘ass’ meaning that they are stupid, as donkeys are supposed to be (they are not), is pure speciesm, but this is just not related to the word ‘asshole’. When an American says ‘kiss my ass’, they don’t mean ‘kiss my donkey’, they mean ‘arse’. Although the word ‘asshole’ emerged as a vulgar synonym for ‘anus’ in the 14th century, its usage as a personal insult dates back only to the 20th century, when it become truly popular in American slang (around the 1970s).
Films and TV, as I have noted, have carried ‘asshole’ all over the planet, once the resistance against swearwords was eroded in the 1980s. Incidentally, Brits tend to prefer ‘cunt’ as a strong personal insult against obnoxious men, which is an example of particularly detestable misogyny (fancy insulting a woman by calling her ‘dick’ or ‘cock’). In Spanish, we use ‘gilipollas’ but this is a word that I find quite weak in comparison. Apparently, ‘gilipollas’ comes from caló ‘jili’ or ‘gilis’ meaning idiot, whereas ‘polla’ as we know is a vulgarism for the penis. ‘Gilipollas’ means thus something such as ‘idiot man who thinks with his dick/cock’, though ‘tonto del culo’ (which roughly translates as ‘arseidiot’) is perhaps closer to ‘asshole’. Many articles carry an improbable story borrowed from a blog post by which ‘gilipollas’ comes from one Don Baltasar Gil Imón (1545-1629), the Fiscal del Consejo de Hacienda (or Ministry of Finances) under the Spanish King Carlos IV. This man had two allegedly ugly daughters, whom he would parade in search of a suitor. ‘Polla’ was used in the past a synonym for a young girl (as ‘pollo’ was for boys) and so, apparently, sneers against ‘Gil’ and his ‘pollas’ became the sneer ‘gilipolla’, which sounds to me as a misogynistic explanation. Having said that, ‘polla’ (and in English ‘cock’) is apparently used for the penis because it sits brooding the testicles (‘huevos’) like a hen; ‘chick’ is another word for girl in English, whereas in Spanish we call chickens ‘pollos’, hence the use of the word in the past for young boys. I have seen ‘pollita’ rather than ‘polla’ for girls in old texts. And I have no idea when ‘polla’ became everyone’s favourite vulgar synonym for penis.
So what is an asshole (or a ‘gilipollas’)? Let me use James’s spot-on definition “a person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relationships out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people”. James, who took inspiration for his academic analysis of the asshole from the asshole surfers that do not respect the codes of behaviour in this sport, sees the asshole as someone who does as he pleases regardless of the consequences in social situations that call for restraint, such as being on a queue, driving in the motorway, interacting with one’s peers or subordinates at work, being with one’s family and so on. The asshole, then, is a man whose obnoxious behaviour cannot be stopped because he will not listen to reason and he will not be reformed. “The asshole”, James argues, “refuses to listen to our legitimate complaints, and so he poses a challenge to the idea that we are to be recognized as moral equals”. We fight assholes “for moral recognition in his eyes”, which may makes us unusually aggressive out of frustration.
I know plenty about assholes because, unfortunately, I grew up with one: my father. James is right to say that assholes believe they are special but he is very wrong to say that “the material costs many assholes impose upon others (…) are often by comparison [with actual criminals] moderate or very small”. I am sure he has corrected his own position after publishing Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump (2016). We know now that assholes may even cause the loss of democracy in the USA (please, remember that Trump will run for President again in 2024), whereas assholes like Putin may cause the world to be plunged into a nuclear World War III. My own personal experience of enduring my father also shows that assholes cause widespread misery every minute they are awake. Our family life has been destroyed by the relentless assholery of this man, who can only be called a black hole in his total destruction of anything positive. My father is not a criminal and he cannot be called legally an abuser but he has made my mother’s life miserable. James warns that assholes cannot be reformed or defeated, and that the only solution is to keep a distance from them. Easier said than done, indeed. My siblings and I carry with us the weight of my father’s assholery at all times. In the letter James addresses to the asshole, he writes that “many who know you will find your death relieving. There will be a quiet celebration”. Quiet?
The whole world is right now waiting for the news that Vladimir Putin is ill to be confirmed. Imagine the reaction to his possible death. Now, Putin is useful to explain the difference between an asshole and a villain, both, as I am arguing, figures of male patriarchal empowerment. James claims that calling men like Hitler or Stalin assholes is not enough, as they did major harm to humankind, but at the same time there is no doubt that these men were assholes of a superlative category. What I argued in my book on villainy about Hitler is that there are many potential villains of his kind because patriarchy generates them all the time by allowing men to act on their sense of entitlement to power. Usually this begins within unbearable family dynamics or with school bullying, and progresses until villainy is checked by a stronger individual, the rules of the community or the law. Some assholes, however, are not checked and they are even encouraged, so that they go on empowering themselves until they break the barriers implicit in patriarchy. Then, a hero needs to act to limit the villain’s power, stop the widespread destruction he is causing, and return patriarchy to its status quo. This is what is happening now with Putin: the asshole, who was already giving many signs of villainy, is now expressing himself in full as a villain. Hence the war in Ukraine, the threat of nuclear violence (sent through his minion Lavrov), and the generalized wish that Putin is terminally ill. For here’s the problem: we have a hero (Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people) and a circle of Allies (NATO), but there is not a coordinated international offensive against Putin that can stop him for good. It took six years to defeat Hitler, let’s see how long it will take to defeat Putin.
James observes that assholes are now harder to defeat because they do not represent a particular ideology even when they present themselves as political figures. Trump has nothing to do with Abraham Lincoln, another Republican, but is, in fact, a figure expressing a personal brand of assholery under cover of the GOP. Why is he still so successful? Or Putin, for that matter, leaving aside the machinery of terror he operates in Russia. Because, James argues, we live in times in which narcissism is encouraged and we respond to any figure who frees himself (or herself) from social and moral rules to do as he pleases. I would not hesitate to call many of the influencers who think the world spins around them total assholes, for, unlike those of us who truly want to share knowledge and debate, they want to put their usually uninformed opinion above anyone else’s. Yesterday, an eighteen-year-old white male killed ten fellow Americans, all of them black, convinced that there is a conspiracy to outnumber the white race in his nation. Guess where that idiotic idea comes from? Indeed, assholes cause plenty of damage personally and also because they sanction minion assholes.
If, despite the efforts we are making in academia and in the serious segments of the media, the existence of assholes and villains cannot be prevented, how can we curb down their impact? James, as I have noted, warns that assholes cannot be reformed, whereas I myself argued that villains must be contained for the common good. Rowling gives us a wonderful lesson in Harry Potter when she has the titular hero fight Voldemort in a way that the villain ends up killing himself with the very wand he thought would kill Harry. Her villain, in short, is killed by his own power. Wishing anyone’s death is ugly, but, one cannot see Voldemort in handcuffs facing trial for his crimes against humanity. Hitler could not see himself, either, in that position, hence his suicide in the style of the scorpion surrounded by flames. These days every time a lovely person dies before their time, the whole planet wishes ‘that asshole’ (add the name you prefer) would have died instead. For me, this is the worst thing about assholes and villains: they turn even good people into murderers, if only in their fantasies. For, you see, a pacifist society that does not believe in the death penalty (or in war) does not go about exterminating its members, no matter how obnoxious they can be. We can discuss that self-defeating position, but I’ll conclude by declaring that the asshole’s worst punishment is total ostracism: one can hardly express any entitlement in isolation, for entitlement is always over something or someone.
So, next time your neighbour bothers you, think of how although most assholes are only guilty of assholery occasionally, some assholes may escalate into full villains, if no check is put on their empowerment. Ask Zelensky how he feels about his asshole neighbour and do help Ukraine.
I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/